David Dondero‘s legacy is primarily spread by hand amongst songwriters, bartenders, and a few others who see his music career as being criminally overlooked, a sort of open secret operating in real-time. This is despite releasing more than a dozen records and NPR once naming him among “The Best Living Songwriters“. He’s worn that accomplishment as a kind of fast food paper crown to every town he’s performed in ever since.
A few months ago, I saw David Dondero perform at a coffee shop in Fairfield, Iowa, to a crowd made mainly of transcendental meditation practitioners well into their retirements. That night, his crown was a baseball cap that read “Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ” printed in rainbow letters. He said he’d bought the hat on the boardwalk there. It was holding in the hair that he’d spent the last few years growing. He’d been studying Bruce Springsteen‘s debut since he bought the hat and even covered “For You” during his set. He ran through many of his “hits” that night, songs like “Pity Party“, “South of the South“, “Rothko Chapel“, and “This Guitar“.
Then he played “Immersion Therapy“, the title track of his latest record released this month via Fluff and Gravy Records. The song imagines the singer being left alone “down at the bowling alley social anxiety immersion therapy group meeting”. Dondero’s long been a master of the ever-accumulating, lingering lyrical line, running chords down to their very last gasp just before they finally change. The whole of Immersion Therapy, like all Dondero records, is built with sparse and devastating songs, mostly three-chord affairs that are usually only dressed up with an occasional harmony or a Wurlitzer solo. And that is their brilliance, loaded equally with anxiety and altruism, all delivered with Dondero’s road-hewn warble.
In “Recipe to Be Lonely”, Dondero examines the perilous volley of modern communication: calls never placed, attempts to reach out that are never made. “The telephone used to work two ways / Now it works about eight ways,” he sings at one point. “After the Pandemic” holds a sardonic vision of us all jumping around and singing and dancing together once it all ended, knowing full well that “together” is a word that has been lost now, whatever it meant before.
Amidst only drums and bass on “You Need Your Space”, he imagines a relationship in which one person can never get far enough away from the other and charts the winding path that starts from the couch in the next room and ends up in outer space. “Wrinkles of Your Mind” begins as a plea for a loved one who is fading away right in front of his eyes and turns into a broader commentary on how we handle mental health crises in our derelict American society. Dondero’s secret is that he never preaches; if he does, he’s cracking a grin.
“Sand Sculpture Tombstone” will undoubtedly be an essential part of the Dondero cannon moving forward. Here is Dondero as a pure distiller of the American cultural zeitgeist, both in and out of the mainstream. In a few quick verses centered around a spot on the Florida coastline near where he now lives, he ties together Baldrick Buckle’s sand sculptures, the photograph on the cover of the Rolling Stones‘ Black and Blue, and the artist Robert Rauschenberg. He even invokes someone “taking a Polaroid picture with a camera in a Ziploc bag”.
The remaining songs on Immersion Therapy oscillate between Dondero espousing troubadour mysticism on “Monarch Highway” and “At Least/Not Alone”, and unaffectedly singing over the punk synthpop of “I Followed My Heart”. He finds great camaraderie with people who, like him, are “crumbling from within” and “lost in their own skin”, people who cry into their drinks, and those that make music in rooms by themselves. He never differentiates between the despair of the two, validating both the pain of the singer and those who gather to hear them sing.
On the final track, “Nacre Pericardium”, Dondero recounts hauling the sculpture of his late friend on tour with him across the country. It’s the true heartbreaker, and Dondero leaves it last here to reassert his place amongst the best songwriters still working, either with or without the appropriate and deserved attention. “I went to Santa Fe / I picked up your wolverine / You are still alive in the sculpture / I see your life, I see your dream.”
Eventually, he takes the sculpture to its final resting place: Kansas City. He’s the only pallbearer. When the harmonica finally hits, let me assure you that it is sweet and sad and also kind of perfect.
On Immersion Therapy, David Dondero elegizes those moments of melancholy ever-present in our shared modern times. This is music for desolate days and hidden if dwindled optimism. And just like that harmonica on “Nacre Pericardium”, it’s sweet and sad and kind of perfect.